By: Mary Kate Gladstone, JD Candidate at Wake Forest University School of Law
I still remember the very first day I walked through the doors here. It was much like the first time you do anything, really. There were nerves and excitement and the ever-sobering realization that I would never be able to do that very thing for the very first time ever again. The research center was situated on the outskirts of the city, lifted up on a small hill where it bounced the early morning sunbeams off of its metallic surface and into the eyes of passersby like myself. The first day I drove up to the center, I had to throw my hand up to my eyes to protect from the building’s blinding reflection.
I stepped out of my car, lab coat on, brief case in hand, ready to change the world. I know, everyone has dreams of changing the world, but, in that moment, I knew that I was going to. I had gone to school, studied hard, gotten my MD, and dedicated my life to a career of helping the world on a global scale. I could have gotten a job in a doctor’s office like most of my colleagues, but instead, I came here to be a research scientist. I would help develop vaccines, test products, and assess the effectiveness of treatments that would one day truly change the face of medicine. You should have seen my parents when I got the job; pride was practically seeping out of their pores. I grew up in a small, rural North Carolina town where just leaving to go to college made you a rarity. Imagine what everyone said when I got into medical school. Imagine what they said when I actually got a job. Imagine what they’ll say when I win the Nobel prize one day.
I passed through the double doors and stood in the middle of a sterile lobby with two, sleek gray sofas to my left and right. Directly in front of me was a very empty reception desk. I approached it and stood for a minute, wringing and unwringing my fingers with nerves as I peered over its threshold onto its blank, white surface. Miissing was the most important piece of a reception desk: the receptionist. I turned on my heels, away from the desk and took a few steps towards a large, windowless door in the back left corner of the room. I closed my eyes and took one final deep breath, anticipating the precise moment when I would begin my career. I reached out, wrapped my fingers around the metal handle, and pulled back with a strong, deliberate movement. The door didn’t budge Where is everyone? I called out. “Um, is anyone here?” The door unlocked with a loud thud and the buzzing sound of the newly passable portal filled the lobby. I took a breath, took the handle, and pulled the door open.
Behind the door was a hallway with another door at its far .
I am a perform tests on them, I observe them, I interact with them. They are like us all: different colors, different sizes, and different ages, but they ultimately serve the same purposeConsider this: how many medications have you used in the past week? How many vaccines have you ever received? I can only assume that you haven’t died of polio since I’m telling you this story. Every groundbreaking moment in medicine in recent history is because of research done on subjects – just like the research I am doing.
Part of the amazing thing about what I do is that it’s never static. Instead, it’s an ever-evolving field that is currently tackling some of our most difficult medical questions. I’ll be honest; I’m scared to death of dying, but this work helps me cope. When his mother died, he told me, “I’m the only person I know who has ever wiped both of his parents’ asses.” I might have nearly cracked a smile.
I can also remember being a little girl and watching my great grandmother wither away to nothing as Alzheimer’s slowly stole her from the world. I remember feeling confused, frightened, and ashamed that I would cry and complain whenever my family loaded up in the car to visit her. I just couldn’t take the smell of the rural North Carolina hospital that stunk of bleach and stale water. She died after nibbling on a small plate of chicken and dumplings. My mother hasn’t made chicken and dumplings ever since
It sounds rather selfish, really, that I receive so much personal benefit from the work that I’m doing. In fact, I was so afraid that I often turned a blind eye to death as people I loved slipped from my squinted view in small bits. Sometimes, I feel like I’m finally getting the chance to make it up to them – for all of the days that I turned my eyes away from the dying bodies of the ones I loved. For all of the nights that I cried myself to sleep with guilt because I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye. The work that I am doing is my own way of saying that I’m sorry. I couldn’t save any of them; not from cancer, not from Alzheimer’s, and not from death. But maybe I will save someone else someday. Perhaps I’ll cure cancer or Alzheimer’s. In the meantime, I might develop a flu or HIV vaccine.
It bears mentioning that not all “things” that come from subject testing research are like the cures for diseases that I’m after. My great uncle is a three-star admiral in the navy. (If you aren’t familiar with the navy, that might not mean much to you, but he’s a pretty big deal). So, when he told me he could pull some strings and get me a job working for the Department of Defense in biodefense research when I graduated, I jumped at the opportunity. only survived two days of a Department of Defense biodefense research internship. I learned the hard way that the military uses subjects to study frostbite, oxygen deficiency, hypothermia, and heatstroke. Other subjects are used to study the effects of biological and chemical warfare agents, radiation exposure, burns, and infectious disease. Some researchers amputate subjects’ limbs and just wait for them to bleed out. Others will amputate their limbs just to try to put them back on. Subjects struggle and die from Ebola, Dengue fever, and Anthrax given to them by researchers. When they aren’t being tormented with disease, toxins, and poisoning, they are shot, burned, and cut as their bodies fall prey to the unforgiving will of their captors.
I can hardly remember the first day that I passed through the doors here. It feels like many, many days ago, but it can be difficult to know if it’s morning or night – Monday or Tuesday. Generally, I track my time based on the coming and going of researchers, but living in a room without windows really does things to your perception. The heart of the center is a metallic room with cages strategically placed around its perimeter, so brightly lit that even the shadows seem to have sulked into some dark corner somewhere to hide from the beams of light that would otherwise cut through them. The lights shine with a faint humming tune. A periodic flicker signals the nearness of the end for them. Serves them right. For a while, I thought their piercing glow might blind me.
I am a subject here and I am one of many. Many of us are different, many of us the same, but all of us, at the end of the day, are subjects. And, as subjects, we are subjected to the research of researchers. I don’t know why, and I certainly don’t know how I ended up in this position . . . but I have given up wondering about that. When I first ended up here, I knew nothing beyond the fact that I was born, loaded onto a truck, and brought here. I have since learned that I am part of an entire industry of breeding and supplying subjects to research centers like this one. Some had families and lived normal lives for a time, but for whatever the reason, that ended. They might have run away or been abandoned before they were picked up and taken to a shelter where they lived a momentary life. I suppose they sat and waited for someone to come for them, but no one ever did. If you weren’t picked up by someone there, you might be transported to a center like this one.
Maybe if you got lucky, they’d kill you before you got here.
We live out our days, sitting in cages, often unable to stretch our legs or turn ourselves around for a change of scenery. The researchers might throw “toys” in our cages from time to time apparently under some delusion that a rubber ball might take away from our misery. But when we aren’t sitting in our cages, we are performing the task for which we were brought here in the first place: subject testing.
Subject testing takes many forms and I’ve learned to identify a few. I do recall the first time I saw a subject undergo eye irritancy testing. She was laid on her back with her limbs strapped to her side. A researcher reached into the cage and used a long needle to deliver a dose of some irritant to her right eye. She started to squirm. Her squirming turned to screaming. I watched her face twist and turn in agony as she became a horrific version of what she had been just minutes before. That was the fate the researchers had chosen for her. She would be an eye irritancy subject for the rest of her days, and I would turn my head and try to drown out the sound of her pain every time she fell prey to this obscene ritual.
Around the center, there are many known death sentences, but one stands out as far more gruesome than the others. All the toxicity subjects suffer in different ways, but the outcome is always the same: death. Right then and right there. Their bodies are tested for internal damage.
I suffer my own unique fate that is simultaneously the exact same and completely different every single day. I am a skin corrosivity subject. When the researchers begin a new test, I am shaved so that they can expose completely unprotected patches of my skin to different chemicals in the strange, twisted hope of learning which ones will cause irreversible damage to me. The true torture of these tests is the waiting. Some days I will wait and wait, and the researcher will watch and watch and not much of anything will happen. My skin might swell or itch a bit, but the researchers are careful to do the testing on areas where I cannot reach in my cage. Other days, the chemical may burn through my skin, leaving craters where my flesh once was. It eats through me like some strange parasite, and the researchers always do the same thing: they watch. They watch. They take notes. No matter how much I scream, and no matter how much I beg, they always do the same thing: they watch.
I used to fight and resist the forces of the researchers. I But during the few quiet moments of my day, when I am left in my cage untouched, I think about the strange center I have found myself in. There is something about me and the other subjects that damns us to our fate, and I just can’t understand what it is. I look at the researchers as they pass by, and all I can see is a reflection of myself. An upright, cleanly dressed, pain-free reflection of myself. You see, the researchers and I are one in the same, but there is one circumstance that divides us. They can be free from this center. I can never be free.
Today, I caught my reflection in the mirror and couldn’t help but wonder: why do I deserve a better life than the subjects here? I have been at the center for a year now, and every day is still the same. I see them there in their cages, with flushed faces and timid eyes. I learned quickly in this job to identify the young subjects from the old. The young ones sit almost impossibly still with a stance of complete alertness. They will turn their heads from side to side, examining each researcher as we pass. But even the young ones will one day grow old, if not in years, in spirit. Their bodies will one day no longer be able to carry the burden of their fate and they will begin to wither away. That’s when subjects become “old” in laboratory terms. When they become so tired and beaten down by their position that they stop trying to fight it off. I look at one. He is one of my skin corrosivity subjects. He lays on one side, limbs tucked up securely towards his body, with patches of red, inflamed skin so strategically placed right beyond his reach. I say nothing but kneel to the floor and meet the level of his eyes with a look on my face that says, “You’d be better off dead, wouldn’t you?” He exhales and blinks with a slow deliberate movement before he meets my gaze with an expression that I clearly understand: “I wish I was.”
I know, this scene feels strangely different to you than the one that began this story. What began as my hopeful efforts to improve the world has morphed into an exploitative, abusive process right before your eyes. No one would ever know my The first few times I called my parents to catch up, I was overwhelmed with excitement and eagerness for the future. They were proud of me. The calls got less and less frequent as I became less and less able to lie to them. My mother would hang up and sit by the phone with tears in her eyes because her little girl had finally made a name for herself. I would hang up and sit by the phone with tears in my eyes because I was a goddamned liar.
The worst part of it all is that no one outside of this center can ever know the pain that has been inflicted here. Let me rephrase that. They know the pain, but they have chosen to turn a blind eye to it. In this bizarre progression of history, things that used to be novel, scientific, and often criticized have been rebranded as tradition; a “necessary evil.” Everything has gone so horribly wrong. Inevitably, someone in a position of power did to society just what I have done to these subjects: beat down their will so mercilessly and constantly until they could no longer resist it. I think that’s what happened. After being told lies for so long, it became hard for people to remember what they thought was right and wrong. So was born the tradition of of abuse.
The door behind me opens, and I am launched back into reality. How long have I been here, crouched on the ground sharing sympathetic glances with the motionless, speechless subject before me? How much longer can I spend my days grappling with the guilt that forces me to choose between sparing these subjects and contributing to my research? I gather my thoughts and stand to meet the earnest eyes of a fellow researcher.
“I’m sorry if I startled you.”
“Oh, no, no, I suppose that I was just thinking.”
What difference does it make?
It is finally nighttime. At least, I think it is because all of the researchers appear to have left for the day and have taken the burning fluorescent light of the center with them. Although nighttime brings us subjects a certain degree of solace, our relief doesn’t go much beyond having the spare, unadulterated opportunity to shift in our cages or let out a heavy sigh without drawing attention. Finally, the chance to take in the stillness of the research center.
The door behind me opens and I am launched back into reality. How could it be? Has the nighttime come and gone already? Unable to turn myself about in my cage, I sit and I wait. The visitor has brought with it a strange, offensive odor. The mood in the center immediately shifts as the smell wafts through the air and meets the noses of the subjects in their cages. I wait for this mystery morning visitor to make itself known.
It is her. That same researcher that knelt to the ground and stared at me with her watery eyes and mouth gaping open. I do feel a sense of relief as she steps across the cold vinyl floor, but something feels quite different here. She never turns on the light. And what is she wearing? She is a stark contrast to her familiar self, always so crisp and clean in her white coat as she shuffles busily across the floor. Today, she is a phantom, a shadow of her former self, slinking through the room. She is so dark that I’m not sure that I truly see her. Is it my mind playing these vile tricks on me as I watch shadows move about in the darkness? I see her, or some apparition of her, slip through the room before she turns, spinning about herself and looking at us all in our cages with a type of frantic indecision on her face. I see the whites of her eyes. They cut through the darkness and find their way through it to meet mine. I see in her eyes that she has made a decision.
Just as swiftly as she entered the room, she appears at the entrance of my cage, but I know that our meeting is not under usual circumstances. She bends down and reaches out her hand. She takes ahold of the clasp of my enclosure and begins to speak in a way that indicates her nerves: “It’s okay.” Just the sound of those words makes my stomach turn. I have heard that meaningless rhetoric for as long as I have been here. Telling me that “it’s okay” tells me that just the opposite is true. It is not okay. I know what she plans to do to me. As she fidgets with the clasp, I summon all my strength and back myself as far as I can into the corner of my enclosure. I want to scream. It’s funny, for as long as I’ve wanted to die and end this misery, I’ve never wanted so badly to keep living. She opens the door of my enclosure and reaches a long, slender hand into the cage with white, skeletal fingers. I now know who she is. She must be death here to greet me.
I was in over my head. I certainly felt like I had a plan when I left my home and arrived here at two o’clock in the morning. But once I walked into the center and saw all the subjects in their cages, I froze.
Working in this center over the past year has nearly killed me. It has completely torn my flesh apart like a doctor’s pick peeling away pieces of my skin and muscle leaving nothing but frail bones and a set of worn down teeth. It’s all that I can do to pull myself from the bed in the morning and drag my feet like cinderblocks through the cold, gray doors of the center every day. I watched four researchers, a ravaging mob, beat a subject to death after she lashed out in confusion and fear last week. I stood, only a few feet away, with tears in my eyes as my hand came to my throat, unable to scream out a plea of forgiveness for her. I looked on until they each turned around, pleased with their hard work, and left her body a bloody, contorted carcass. I imagine her soul rose into the air and joined the ranks of all the subjects who had died a tortured death in that center, leaving her body behind.
During that bizarre display of power, I saw the truth for the first time that researchers believe their dominance over the subjects gives them a divine right to abuse and neglect them and use their bodies for the benefit of mankind. A benefit no subject will ever enjoy. With this realization came the determination to make a change.
Despite my nerves, I could no longer take part in a practice of using others for the benefit of society. Surely, if any of these subjects had offered themselves up to this lifestyle, I would feel differently, but they didn’t. In all my time as a researcher, I never once asked a subject if I could invade his body with complete disregard to the side effects. When they would scream, I took their protests as misunderstanding. And when they stopped screaming, it was because I had beaten them into such a state of helplessness that they could no longer object. I took their silence as acceptance. I had to end it for all of them. For good.
I had to be quick. The subject backed himself tightly against the far edges of his cage and I pleaded with him. “Please, I am begging you. Come here. I need you to come with me.” But habit has made him untrusting and frantic. I know that he could hear the desperation in my voice as it cracked with emotion. I extended my arms as far as I could reach, clawing at the air in hopes that if I could just lay one hand on him, I could pull him from his enclosure and spare him, but still he resisted. I had lost his trust and knew that I could never earn it back. I would have to leave him behind.
I stood up quickly, with a motion that I could tell startled the subjects in their cages. A subtle murmur among them rose, but I was earnest in blocking out the noise. I turned, and hurried towards the large door that exists into the hallway. As I swung it open, I looked down. There, on the ground, lied the fate of the subjects. I picked it up and, for the last time, entered the room.
The smell of the gasoline burned the insides of my nostrils and alarmed the subjects. What began as a grunt, then a murmur, began to sound more like a roar as I ran through the room frantically, dousing everything I could with the gasoline. I looked back to that subject and our eyes met just like they did earlier that day and I was momentarily fixated as I waited for a look of understanding to come across his face. It never came. I snapped out of my trance and found myself standing in the doorway with a lit match only seconds away from falling from my fingers. I closed my eyes, opened my hand, and turned to run down that chessboard hallway.
As I made it outside, I collapsed to the ground. I covered my ears in a desperate attempt to drown out the sound of the chaos and destruction I had created. The smell of the burning flesh and hair filled my lungs and left a thick, sticky residue inside of them that filled my mouth with the most putrid and evil taste. I dropped my hands to my sides and looked up to that hill. Although it was the same hill I looked upon as I arrived at the center for my first day of work, it was also so different. Set ablaze, I felt that the center might blind me. Closing my eyes brought no relief, but new torment. All I could see was the face of that subject with his eyes so gently opening and closing, who so desperately longed for death, but so earnestly fought against it when I tried to spare him.
I turned a figurative hell for these subjects into a true one that roared on, waiting to consume the souls of those who committed such injustices there. Still, beyond the flames rose the downtrodden, the manipulated, and the abused who were sentenced to death in that place. It can be my only hope that one will someday testify for me. Perhaps it will be the subject I had to leave behind. Surely, he will plead for me: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But this I do know: I loved that pig.